The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on November 23, 2010 in the case of “the SHAC 7” – Kevin Kjonaas, Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy, Joshua Harper, Andrew Stepanian, and Darius Fullmer v. United States of America, on petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.
The petitioners are animal rights activists associated with Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) who were sent to prison based solely on their ideological support for animal rights protests, as expressed on an advocacy-focused internet site. The online speech reported on and expressed support for the actions of third-party activists, including some acts of civil disobedience such as freeing beagles from the custody of the animal testing lab.
The brief asked the Court to clarify how longstanding First Amendment principles apply in blogs and internet websites, which are an important and developing aspect of our culture. Under traditional legal tests, criminal incitement and threats must be designed to evoke imminent unlawful action. But as the brief notes, “The nature of the internet — available to and aimed at a general audience rather than a specific target, reaching numbers unknowable to the speaker at the time the communication is made, and accessed over an unpredictable period of time — precludes application of traditional tests to establish the imminence and incitement needed to constitute a ‘true threat.’”
The brief, written by attorneys Heidi Boghosian (NLG Director) and Prof. Zachary Wolfe (NLG National Vice President and chair of the Amicus Committee), explains that any appropriate framework must protect the right to engage in heightened political rhetoric on the internet such as practiced by the SHAC 7.
“The SHAC 7 case has broad implications for First Amendment jurisprudence,” said Heidi Boghosian. “At issue is a website that disseminated information on animal welfare demonstrations and direct actions—the National Lawyers Guild does not believe that this kind of internet organizing rises to the level of proscribed speech.”
The National Lawyers Guild, founded in 1937, is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar organization in the United States. Its headquarters are in New York and it has chapters in every state.